My experience volunteering with Caltech CTLO

This article was written by Rodinde Hendrickx, she can be reached at

When my husband Evert and I, Rodinde, moved to Pasadena in the wet January of 2017 I thought I had my priorities in order. Filing for my Employment Authorization Document, getting a nice apartment and finding a great job. I knew the EAD process would take some time (at least 90 days; but little did I know it would take mine almost 7 months to come through!) and I was not going to “sit around” until that time. I was eager to get to know my new home and dive into the SoCal way of life.

As my husband settled in his office in West-Bridge as a postdoc in Theoretical Physics, I wanted to make my own connections. After we both attended the mandatory “Welcome to Caltech meeting” I got in contact with Barbara Avouac, the Relocation and Cultural Adjustment Advisor at the International Offices of Caltech. We met over coffee at the old Red Door Cafe (when the doors where still actually red!) and Barbara asked me specifically what I would like to do in my ideal world. A great question that I was unprepared for, but since then have asked myself a bunch of times. I don’t remember exactly how I replied, but something about my passion for science in general must have come across. Barbara suggested, amongst other things, to visit the Center for Teaching, Learning and Outreach (CTLO) here at Caltech. That same day my husband also spoke to the same contact Barbara had given me, and suggested me to contact CTLO. Guess what I did the very next morning..

CTLO has many wonderful outreach opportunities and programs running for Caltech students and affiliated families. Kitty Cahalan told me about just a few of them, and one was a program where a group of volunteers teach a science class at a local elementary school. It sounded equally fun and challenging. Throughout my undergraduate and graduate degree training I had been involved in teaching, but mostly smaller groups of senior students. This opportunity meant classroom size groups of elementary school kids! The thought of that was a little scary to be honest.

Initially I thought I could help out until my work permit would come through (remember that I had no clue it would take so long) and decided to help out with the team responsible for Kindergarten, first and second grade. Once a week a group of 2-3 scientists would go to the public school in north-west Pasadena where mostly students from minority communities are enrolled and bring a fun science related concept with them. Students and scientists alike were excited about these times to spend together. Our group of scientists for the K-2 group consisted of a biologist, a geologist and an astronomer. With the help and supervision of the team at CTLO we brought various topics and scientific disciplines to the kids with fun activities ranging from light/sound, to human cells, ecosystems, seismology, cosmology all the way to traveling in space!

Mostly our classes consist of some introduction to a new topic/concept and then time for the junior scientist to explore this topic themselves. Hands-on activities work really well for these age groups and kids are even more excited when they can take something home!

As a microbiologist myself I am passionate about life too small for the naked eye to see. When I learned that CTLO had a microscope, it was clear to me we had to bring it to class! For this particular lesson we had the students bring something they found in the school garden with them to observe under the microscope (flowers, leaves, sand, bugs etc.). Students were encouraged to make scientific drawings and notes about what they saw. To me it was very rewarding to see all the scientists-in-the-making so excited about something I am passionate about too.

Over the last three years, we have not just encouraged these students to be scientists but also developed a relationship with them. They will come into class and tell us about how they told someone at home about the science they learned a while back, or that they saw snow and now knew where it came from, or that they saw a rainbow and explained why it is there. These stories are a big encouragement to the program.

But they not only learn from us, I learn a lot from them. Getting an abstract science concept across to 5-7 year old’s is a challenge by itself. I learned to listen more than to talk, to look for the “aha” moment in the students’ eyes, and to let them make the final leap to mastering a subject. Luckily, kids make it easy for us: you can tell if they are interested, curiously excited or really bored. Over the last three school years I have learned more and more about how to deal with each of these emotional states (and more) and make the most of it. And no, not every class is a success. We all learn by falling down and getting up. Kids are a forgiving crowd, and possibly the most honest audience I have ever had. 

In August 2017, I finally received my work permit and I started my new job at Caltech in late October. However, I could not say goodbye to the new friends I made at the elementary school and I continued volunteering with CTLO. For those of you who are interested but don’t know if this is for you, or maybe doubt that they are qualified, please reach out! You will bring joy and excitement to children and will learn so much yourself along the way, especially if you have no prior experience. Outreach was not on my priority list when I came to Pasadena, but it should have been, I’m happy I was guided there.

Those interested in volunteering with the science outreach program can reach out to Kitty Cahalan (CTLO). Feel free to reach out to me, Rodinde, for questions & experiences in science outreach in Pasadena & Caltech!

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